Every woman has heard the one about the ponytail. If you wear your hair tied up, rather than hanging down, it apparently makes you easier to grab from behind. So, best to think about that when you’re getting dressed. And, while you’re at it, make sure your skirt isn’t too short, your top not too low, your hood down and headphones out – and accessorise with keys between fingers.
The murder of Sabina Nessa in a park in south London last Friday evening, has reignited the all-too-familiar conversation around violence against women and girls. For the uninitiated, you might naively imagine these verbal postmortems would go something like: “Men, stop being violent towards women!” Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
After every tragic loss of female life at the hands of a man, there is a wave of (undoubtedly well-meaning but ultimately misdirected) safety tips for women that place the onus squarely on them to, well, be less of a victim. The encyclopedic list often includes avoiding darkness, travelling in packs, being sober, showing no skin – and being as alert as humanly possible.
On one particular sheet of general street safety tips from the Metropolitan Police, reportedly handed out by a local community group in Greenwich following Sabina’s death, it recommends trying assertiveness. “From the moment you step out on to the street in the morning, look assertive and act and walk with confidence.” Come on ladies, lean in!
Not only do many of these directions contradict each other (be on the phone so you have someone checking in on you, but don’t be on the phone so much that you aren’t vigilant; look assertive, but definitely don’t look a man straight in the eye to avoid unwanted attention), they also aggressively perpetuate the female position as one of second-class citizens, whose duty it is to defer to the unalienable rights of violent men to exist.
And the idea that any woman would need reminding of these “rules” – when they have been seared into our collective consciousness since childhood – is laughable.
We know little about Sabina’s last movements, and to dissect her behaviour only plays into the entirely false narrative that she could be in any way to blame if she had acted differently. But for those who incorrectly believe that if women play by the safety rules they will be saved, the circumstances do matter.
Consider that it was not late at night, around 8.30pm, just over an hour after sunset (which on 17 September was at 7.10pm). Consider also that it was not a long journey – just a five-minute walk from her house – and she was on her way to the pub, not drunk on the journey home.
These facts only confirm what women have always known: that these “safety rules” are false assurances that society gives us to shuck off responsibility for what happens to us at the hands of the insidious misogyny it allows to run rampant. Violent men are an accepted part of our day-to-day existence. Women and girls are the ones who have to concede and make themselves smaller for a stake in public life.
Reading between the lines, the message is clear: if you play by the agreed-upon rules, maybe your odds will be better. But let’s face it, we can’t really protect you.
Yet it continues to tell us women what to do: go out in pairs (Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman did that). Trust authority figures (Sarah Everard did that). Don’t walk, get a taxi (the victims of John Worboys did that). Walk in well-lit areas (every woman and girl who has ever been catcalled on the way to work or school knows daylight is no deterrent for a man intent on making you feel degraded and humiliated for his own pleasure).
As the winter evenings begin to draw in again, the small freedoms afforded to women by the long summer days are withdrawn. We make a conscious and knowing readjustment to the new season and what the darkness means for how we can live our lives. The messaging tells us – and has always told us – that if we reject the playbook, we may reap the potential consequences.
For as long as women’s safety is seen as conditional in exchange for remembering the rules, men and boys will continue to wield violence, and this cycle of tragedy will never stop.